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New Swedish Books – the folkhem, ethics and ecocriticism

It has arrived – the autumn issue of New Swedish Books. Find out what the contributors have to say about current trends in Swedish literature.

Twice a year the Swedish Arts Council publishes a guide to outstanding new Swedish literature. Independent writers make the selection and present new works of poetry and prose, graphic novels and children’s and young adult literature. But what trends have they spotted in each genre? What are Swedish authors writing about this autumn and in what way? Here the contributors themselves tell you more about choosing titles for this season’s issue of New Swedish Books.

This year’s literature selection for adults was made by Maria Ehrenberg, who asserts that the epic narrative has developed and matured in Swedish prose fiction. History plays an important part in several of the books, which revolve around urgent questions such as memory, guilt and alienation, says Maria.

What do you think the reasons are for the increased importance of history for Swedish novelists?

“I think the social developments all of Europe is going through are leaving their mark on contemporary Swedish literature (and much of European literature as a whole as far as I can tell). Xenophobic parties are growing stronger, which worries a lot of people. Fear of a repeat of the Second World War, the concentration camps, runs through the novels, but there is also a discussion around how to deal with survivor’s guilt. There is a large group of refugees in Sweden today whose stories recall the survivors of the Second World War. In Sweden we have seen a privatisation of society’s assets. The collectivist folkhem (the people’s home) of yesteryear has turned into an individualist society of choice. Today the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has been for a long time and that obviously generates a longing for a society that was meant to be for everyone – the folkhem.”

You have highlighted humanism and compassion as important themes in this year’s poetry output – has ethics become more central to Swedish poetry?

“To my mind ethics is always present in poetry, it is a genre built around humanity’s core values. But yes, I feel it has become more central for the same reasons I outlined above.”

Graphic novels are booming in Sweden, writes Alexandra Sundqvist, pointing to an impressive breadth in terms of both content and style. This autumn’s output contains contemporary urban narratives, political pamphlets, searing depictions of youth and more. Swedish comics have become more refined in the last few years, reckons Alexandra, helped along by writers who use their unique, independent voices and new creative methods to interrogate and dramatise our modern times:

“This year’s output is a fair representation of Sweden’s comics sphere. One claim I might venture to make is that the political wave we have been seeing for the last few years, featuring virtually propagandist comics from left-wing writers (of the type ‘Tories out, NOW!’), seems to have ebbed out. Don’t get me wrong, comics are still just as political as far as content goes, but their narrative techniques have changed –stylistically they are more subtle and artistic – but still explosive message-wise. I would probably like to say that comics are smarter now, better, really.”

Autobiographical graphic novels have been prominent in Sweden’s output for several years now, is that still the case?

“I feel I have noticed that the seemingly superficially individualist examples have become less common. Instead, there is a yearning for togetherness, community, a willingness to raise issues and unite in them. Which is something I think plays a growing part in society as a whole. Comics are by nature very direct, it is an excellent art form for reflecting the social climate.”

A wide range of registers and genres – poetry, thrillers, alphabet books and social criticism – characterises Per Israelson’s selection of children’s and young adult titles as well. A common denominator for several of the books is animals and objects acting like humans. Anthropomorphism, says Per Israelson, is a well-established narrative technique, not least in folk tales:

“Anthropomorphism has been used extensively throughout Western cultural history, often for pedagogical or moralising purposes. When done well, anthropomorphism is not about giving human voice to animals or objects, but rather, it is about presenting an unfamiliar voice, even if it is only an echo of non-human nature. In these narratives – which include works by writers such as Shaun Tan, Tove Jansson and Franz Kafka – anthropomorphism becomes a means to counter the narcissism with which humanity has appropriated this world. Then, anthropomorphism becomes ecocriticism. Anthropomorphism plays that kind of critical role in the books I have selected. They are stories in which animals and objects participate in the discourse, in their own right, with their own voices.”

About the contributors
Maria Ehrenberg is an author and regional librarian in Halland.
Per Israelson is a PhD student at Stockholm University.
Alexandra Sundqvist is a cultural journalist.

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